US Department of State Daily Briefing #51: Thursday, 3/28/91

Boucher Source: State Department Deputy Spokesman Richard Boucher Description: 12:35 PM, Washington, DC Date: Mar 28, 19913/28/91 Category: Briefings Region: MidEast/North Africa, East Asia, Subsaharan Africa, Eurasia Country: USSR (former), South Africa, Japan, Albania, Estonia, Iraq, Kuwait Subject: Mideast Peace Process, Arms Control, Terrorism, United Nations, State Department, Human Rights, Democratization, Regional/Civil Unrest (ON THE RECORD UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED) MR. BOUCHER: Carol Giacomo wants a few minutes. MS. GIACOMO (Reuters): Before the briefing starts, my colleagues have asked me to say something on behalf of Adam Shub who is leaving the Press Office after a couple of years stint to go to Caracas, Venezuela. Adam has done a very professional job, and he's been very helpful to many of us day after day after day, and we wish him well. PRESS: Hear, hear. (Applause) MR. BOUCHER: Very nice. MR. GEORGE GEDDA (AP): When asked my opinion, I took the question. (Laughter) MR. BOUCHER: You'll get back to us on that, George? MR. GEDDA: Yes. MR. NORM KEMPSTER (L.A. Times): The vote was 12 to 11. MR. BOUCHER: O.K. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I thought I'd maybe start out by updating you on the unrest in Iraq and the events that are unfolding there, and then we can move on to the other questions that I'm sure you have in mind.

[Iraq: Civil Unrest Update]

In the north this morning, the government began a major assault against the City of Kirkuk. Government forces were employing tanks, heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and probably multiple rocket launchers. Buildings and other facilities inside Kirkuk had already suffered significant damage during the first hours of the assault. Elsewhere in northern Iraq, clashes continued between government forces and dissident elements east and southeast of Mosul. The government has recently sent additional reinforcements to Mosul. We cannot confirm government claims that its forces have retaken the town of Dohuk northeast of Mosul. In the south, we can confirm at this point only one major clash early this morning took place in the lower Euphrates Valley in which government forces used artillery against the dissidents. That's the basic situation. So now I'd be glad to take your questions.

[USSR: Major Fire at US Embassy Moscow]

Q If there are no questions on that, could we talk about the fire at the Embassy in Moscow? MR. BOUCHER: Sure. Let me start out by sort of giving you the basic rundown. At approximately 10:15 a.m., Moscow time, a major fire broke out in the central section at the U.S. Embassy office building in Moscow. The entire building was promptly evacuated. One Marine Guard, one construction employee and one Soviet firefighter have been treated for smoke inhalation. We have no other reports of injuries. Local firefighters were called to the scene. The fire has been put out, although some areas are still smoldering. A very preliminary damage assessment has been conducted. It appears that the fire began in an elevator shaft and travelled upward to the attic. The roof over the central section of the building is gone. Actual fire damage is concentrated in the attic and in areas near the elevator shaft on lower floors. Water and smoke damage is extensive throughout the central section. The two side wings of the building which contain housing and offices were mostly spared, and a more comprehensive damage assessment is underway. Soviet firefighters were called right away, and they were given authorization to enter without delay upon their arrival. Marine Guards had to escort firefighters to some areas in order to ensure that they could find their way and in order to open locked doors. Escorts were arranged without significant delay. Several hundred people work in the Embassy, and it would have been unconscionable in our view to risk their lives by failing to call for assistance. The Embassy, of course, does not have its own capability to fight major fires. At this point, the Embassy is closed. None of its public phone lines are operating, and it may take a few days to provide even an estimate of when normal services to the public, including visa issuances, might resume. We do expect that arrangements will be made very soon to provide emergency services to American citizens. And, finally, the new Embassy Compound, which is near the damaged Chancery, as you know, contains housing and some support facilities. There is also a U.S. commercial office in a separate building near the damaged Chancery and limited operations are now being conducted from those areas. Q Does the central portion of the building which was damaged contain the Ambassador's office and other sensitive areas? MR. BOUCHER: I believe that all those main offices are in that central portion of the building. Yes. Q Richard, what does this do to the Embassy's ability to have secure communications with Washington? MR. BOUCHER: It's not something that I can go into great detail on. But, I mean, first of all, the Chancery has been evacuated. We don't think it's safe for people to go into even the undamaged areas for normal work at this point. We have phone contact at present with our Embassy, but our normal communications have been interrupted. Q Richard, one of the facilities that was in that central section of the building was the secure conference room. Does this affect the ability of the Embassy personnel to hold secure meetings? MR. BOUCHER: John, there's always a limit on how much I can talk about specific security capabilities that we have and our ability to hold meetings. On the general question of security, I'd have to say that we have no indication at this time of any significant activities that would have compromised security during the course of the fire, but we really need to have a damage assessment before we can offer you firm judgment. Q Has foul play been ruled out? MR. BOUCHER: I'm not aware of any suspicions. I think my characterization about the fire is about as far as I can go in telling you about the cause. Q When you talked about safety, they're not allowed to go back because it's unsafe because of wide structural damage, water, what? MR. BOUCHER: As I said, in addition to the fire damage to the upper part of the building, there's extensive water and smoke damage in other parts of the building, and so we're doing a survey to see if there is in fact structural damage to the building that would make it totally unsafe. Q Has this changed your assessment on what you're going to do about the new Embassy? Has it sort of encouraged you to perhaps speed up that process? MR. BOUCHER: Well, Carol, I think you know that our assessment has always been that we couldn't maintain operations in this old building over the long term. We've been trying for two years to get funding for new building projects. I talked a few weeks ago about the fact that, having been unable to get funding for the tear-down and rebuild option, which was still our preference, that we were floating -- we were talking about the idea of something that's called "top hat," taking off part of the top of the building, a couple floors, and building onto that. You know, that project remains a key focus for us. It remains something that we definitely want to do. We have spent some money in the old building. We had an extensive project to rehabilitate the Chancery -- including a sprinkler system and fire safety improvements. This project was underway, and the sprinkler system in fact worked in the areas where it had been installed, and we think it saved us from having even more extensive damage. But efforts like this in the old building are no substitute for getting underway with the very important project that we've been pushing for some time, and we hope to be able to do that. Q Richard, is the new tower -- regardless of whether it could be considered suitable for secure type operations, is it even suitable as a temporary place in which you could conduct some non-secure work, or is it just -- I don't know what the stage is that it was at when it was stopped. MR. BOUCHER: Many of you have been to Moscow and have probably seen these things and can explain them better than I can, so I will use the words they gave me. But there is a distinction between the New Embassy Compound and the New Office Building. The compound has 134 apartments and support and recreational facilities that have been in use for a number of years. Temporary operations are being conducted out of that section that is called the "Embassy Compound." The New Office Building itself is nowhere near completion, and it's just not suitable for any kind of temporary operations. Q Richard, do you have an assessment whether the structural damage to this building now makes it impossible to put a "top hat" on top of it? MR. BOUCHER: No. That's not what we're dealing with. Q Oh, that's the new Embassy. MR. BOUCHER: The fire was in the old Chancery. The "top hat" option is something to do with the New Office Building. Q Excuse me. Another question on that: There have been many warnings that this building is unsafe, and in fact just as recently as last week Sherman Funk testified in Congress, saying that the building was unsafe. Do you feel that Congress has failed to move with enough dispatch to address these problems in the past and -- MR. BOUCHER: We're certainly interested in working with the Congress to address these problems. I will point out, as I did before, that we have been looking for funding for this project for two years, and we haven't succeeded in getting it. Q Slow ball right over the plate. (Laughter) Q Getting back to Kirkuk for a moment, can you characterize the size of the assault against the Kurds in the area, and also, if you could, characterize with some precision the damage done to the city itself? MR. BOUCHER: I can't give you in any more detail than I did. I said it's a major assault, and that there's already been significant damage, and I think I told you about the kinds of heavy weaponry that government forces are employing. Q Everything absent of fixed-wing aircraft. Is that -- MR. BOUCHER: I really don't know what "everything" is. I've given you an inclusive list of the items that we know they're using. Q Is the U.S. policy -- could you reiterate the U.S. policy toward the Kurdish resistance for us, please? MR. BOUCHER: Today, as we have done in all the previous days past, and as the President did again yesterday, I believe? Q Yes, please. MR. BOUCHER: Just for the fun of it? Q If it wouldn't impose on -- MR. BOUCHER: I don't have the precise words down here. As you know, we have said that we stand for the territorial integrity of Iraq. We don't believe in the dismemberment of Iraq. We believe that the Iraqi people should be allowed to choose their own leadership. Q Can I take you back to Moscow for a minute? MR. BOUCHER: Sure.

[USSR: Ban on Rallies]

Q The other great event going on there besides the fire. Can you give us a sense of what has happened there in terms of this rally and the enforcement of the ban on rallies, and whether the United States has any reaction to the events of today? MR. BOUCHER: O.K. As far as what's going on, I'm going to give you what I think is a shortened version of this, because I think we've all been watching it on television all morning, and you don't need the excruciating detail. But basically the Russian Congress of the People's Deputy has voted to rescind the Central Government's ban on demonstrations and to return control of the Moscow police to city authorities. The Central Government has refused to recognize this decision and has vowed to prevent all demonstrations in central Moscow. Soviet military and Interior Ministry troops presented a large show of force in central Moscow in an effort to prevent demonstrators from reaching the area near the Kremlin. Witnesses have reported seeing water cannon and large trucks blocking streets leading to the city center, but there have so far been no reports of tanks or armored personnel carriers on city streets. I would point out that we are following this closely, not only from here but that our Embassy, despite the fire, is out and about and is following events as closely as possible and reporting back to us by telephone. Q Do we have any reaction to these events?

[USSR: US Position on the Right to Demonstrate]

MR. BOUCHER: Margaret, I think, yesterday expressed our basic feelings about peaceful demonstrations and the need to recognize the right of people to demonstrate freely. Secretary Baker expressed our concern directly to the Soviet Charge in Washington yesterday. Ambassador Matlock has raised our concern as well yesterday and today with senior levels of the Soviet government. We see peaceful protest as a legitimate means of expressing one's political views. Expansion of the rights of expression and assembly have been a hallmark of the Soviet government's commitment to reform. We have seen no indications that suggest that demonstrations planned for today would have been any less peaceful or orderly than previous demonstrations in Moscow, all of which took place without incident. We urge the Soviet government to remove all unnecessary restrictions on the rights of free expression and assembly as soon as possible. And the current political crisis in the Soviet Union, we believe, cannot be resolved through confrontation. A truly durable and legitimate solution can only come through peaceful dialogue in an orderly, democratic, political process.

[USSR: Coal Miner Strike]

Q Richard, do you have an assessment of the extent and seriousness of the strikes in various key sectors of the Soviet economy? MR. BOUCHER: I think we're dealing principally with the coal miner strike, which I guess we've seen is appearing to have some effects on their iron and steel industry on the metallurgical sectors. And, again, in this area we hope that the Soviet government will find ways of dealing peacefully with the workers concerned. There are Soviet laws that were passed in 1989 and '90 which gave Soviet workers the right to strike and to form independent unions. I would note also that the Soviet Union is a signatory to the International Labor Organization's Convention Number 87 of 1956. This is known as the "Freedom of Association Convention" which guarantees the rights of workers to form unions and to strike. So in this case as well, we hope the Soviet government will view free trade unions as a progressive and integral part of the freer economic system it hopes to build. Q And as far as where authority should lie over the police in Moscow, does the United States have a view of that? MR. BOUCHER: That is really a question that lies at the very heart of the debate that they're having right now over the functions of the Central Government versus the Republics. It is something that we see as for the Soviet people to determine.

[Middle East Peace Process: Ideas on Sponsorship]

Q Can we go to another subject? Is the United States willing to sponsor with the Soviet Union a regional peace conference in the Middle East? MR. BOUCHER: John, there are a number of ideas out there; there are a number of ideas in play as regards the peace process right now. We've told you about the meetings that we're having with various people to discuss those ideas, but you're also aware that the Secretary, during his trip, said that he didn't want to get into specifics until things had jelled. As Margaret said yesterday, we're looking for a convergence of points of view. We're looking to see what the parties are willing to do. But I'm going to decline at this point from discussing any specific ideas which may be out there. Q So we should just ask every day whether anything has jelled? MR. BOUCHER: Or converged, I guess, is the proper term. Q Or converged? MR. BOUCHER: Yes. Q Has anything converged? MR. BOUCHER: At this point, no, not that I'm aware of. I don't have anything to -- Q Can we go back to Kirkuk a second? It sounds like we are in the beginning stages of a major bloody situation in Kirkuk. Is the United States doing anything in terms of any contact with the Iraqi government, warning them against taking massive retaliatory action that they appear to be getting ready to take? Are we saying anything new about helicopters? Are we doing anything or just kind of watching this happen? MR. BOUCHER: We're following the situation closely, Al. I don't think we've had any meetings with the Iraqis on this or any changes in our policy on aircraft or helicopters, or things like that. Q Our policy on aircraft is one thing; our policy on helicopters is the other. MR. BOUCHER: (Inaudible) Q On Kirkuk, do you have any information on control of the oil fields in that vicinity? MR. BOUCHER: No, I don't. Q Richard, on Kirkuk also. Since you said that the U.S. doesn't favor the dismemberment of Iraq, would a victory, whatever that means, for the Kurds be considered by the U.S. as dismemberment of Iraq? MR. BOUCHER: I think that's a very hypothetical question at this point on how things are going to turn out and what the views are of the people who may win. I can't specify one way or the other at this point.

[Iraq: Humanitarian Assistance to Civilians]

Q Is anybody talking about humanitarian aid to the Kurds -- food? MR. BOUCHER: The Sanctions Committee has set up a mechanism to deal with questions like this. The decision of March 22 that the Sanctions Committee made at the U.N. involves a determination that humanitarian circumstances apply with respect to the entire civilian population in Iraq in all parts of Iraq's national territory. The Committee also decided to supply food to the entire civilian population of Iraq on condition that the sending state notify the Committee of an impending shipment. The Sanctions Committee also insisted that the Secretary General set up a monitoring system to ensure that humanitarian relief shipments reach all Iraqi civilian groups in need. We have urged the Secretary General to move rapidly on this. Q How are those shipments taking place, Richard? Under the auspices of the ICRC or the U.N.? Exactly what's the mechanism for getting the food and humanitarian assistance into places like northern Iraq, which is in turmoil? MR. BOUCHER: The mechanisms have to be set up, I think, first, by the Secretary General to look at ways of ensuring that the food reaches the people that need it. The precise mechanism for each shipment would be determined by those who are making the shipments, whether it was the Red Cross or some government or otherwise. The action of the Sanctions Committee, essentially, permits those shipments with notification. Q And are those shipments underway? There's, as you may know, a story this morning in which the Kurds are complaining that their biggest problem at the moment is starvation; that they're not getting any food and they're all starving to death up there? MR. BOUCHER: I wasn't able to get information on any specific shipments that might be underway. I'm told that we don't have any information that either the Iraqi government or, for that matter, neighboring countries are blocking shipments. But at this point, I don't have any information on shipments that might be undertaken. Q Yeah, but how are they going to get there if the Iraqi government doesn't get them there? MR. BOUCHER: Well, as I said, there are mechanisms that can be set up to confirm the receipt, to confirm that the shipments are going to people who want them. Q But there is no evidence that they have gone there, is there? MR. BOUCHER: No. As I said, I don't have any information on specific shipments that might be undertaken. But on the other hand, I don't have any information that the Iraqi government is blocking any shipments. Q Also, back on the question of the U.S. and USSR. You said there are many things out there. Can you tell us if one of them is this program? Is that being considered? MR. BOUCHER: At this point, I'm not going to get into any specific ideas. Q Yesterday, Margaret said that the Secretary would be willing to meet members of the Iraqi opposition. Has anybody requested a meeting yet? MR. BOUCHER: No. Q Can you discuss the circumstances of the Secretary's warning to the Soviet Charge here? How was that -- MR. BOUCHER: I believe he was placing a call to Bessmertnykh who was not available, so he called the Soviet Charge here. As I said, he relayed our concerns about the situation in Moscow, about various reports coming out about what might happen. We, both in that conversation and in the conversations in Moscow, pointed to the CSCE commitments that the Soviet government had made and urged them to handle the events of today in conformance with those commitments. Q Do you have a readout of the Secretary's meeting with the President of Estonia? MR. BOUCHER: No, I don't. I'll have to get one for you later.

[South Africa: Killings in Alexandra]

Q Richard, do you have any comment on the events in Johannesburg? MR. BOUCHER: We're told the killings were in a place called Alexandra. The factional violence and senseless killings continue to bring tragedy to South Africa. We understand that the victims of this attack -- 15 dead and 18 injured -- were members of an ANC-related youth group attending a memorial for the victim of a previous attack. Witnesses say the police were notified of the presence of a suspicious group of people but left after finding no one in the immediate vicinity. The attack came after the police had left. The police have announced that they are investigating the incident. At this point, as far as who is responsible, there is only speculation that it involves the possibility that they were Inkatha sympathizers or elements of some rightist third force. We believe it's the responsibility of the South African police to protect South African citizens, especially in such circumstances and locations where violence has become endemic. It is also the responsibility of the leaders of all groups in South Africa to control their members and actively and vigilantly ensure that the senseless violence stops. Q Can I ask you about the statement attributed to the Israeli police Minister about "shoot to kill Palestinians" who an Israeli may perceive to be attempting to stab them or something? MR. BOUCHER: At this point, we really don't have any further information. We've seen the statements that have been made and quoted in the press. We do understand that there was a special Israeli Cabinet meeting which took place yesterday to discuss security issues, but that did not reach agreement and they will reconvene later. We continue to urge all sides to seek ways to reduce tensions and to replace violence with dialogue and accommodation. Q Richard, has there been any -- Q Do you have any comment on what happened yesterday with the army shooting a 15-year old kid who was spray-painting some slogan on a wall? MR. BOUCHER: No, I don't. Q It's getting to the point where these kids aren't armed, but standing there with a spray gun -- I mean, a spray can -- and they got shot? MR. BOUCHER: I think I would just reiterate our views. The cycle of violence is something that's got to stop and that people have to work towards reaching a peaceful dialogue. Q What was the beginning of the cycle of this case yesterday? MR. BOUCHER: Many, many years ago. Q Has there been any Israeli response to your urgings of them not to go through with the deportation of the four Gazans? Have you noticed any attempt to stop the judicial process there? MR. BOUCHER: I'm not aware of any change in that situation out there. As you know, the United Nations Security Council President issued a statement yesterday that was adopted by consensus. We were part of that consensus; and the statement, we felt, was in conformity with U.S. views. Q Do you have anything on the Secretary General of the Japanese Democratic Party meeting? MR. BOUCHER: No. That's something else -- a meeting this morning that I'll have to get you a readout on later. Q Richard, can we go back to Iraq for a second? Last week, or slightly over a week ago, Pete Williams at the Pentagon said that 3 Iraqi individuals, who were in Saudi camps, were identified as having committed some violations of the Geneva codes. He couldn't say whether those people actually were the people who were alleged to have done the deeds, whatever those were. Do you have anymore on that? MR. BOUCHER: No, I don't. I think I'd have to leave it for him. Q Can you tell us whether there have been any individuals arrested in connection with war crimes violations? MR. BOUCHER: Again, that's something that the Pentagon is better able to address, or are the actual ones who have custody of these people. Q The State Department is conducting its own investigations -- is that right? -- of war crimes violations? MR. BOUCHER: The investigation of war crimes violations is normally centered in an office in the Pentagon. I think it's the Judge Advocate General's Office of the Department of the Army, and then others who acquire information, including people like some of the investigators they've sent out to Kuwait City or ourselves, through our own resources, who have also been passing on information. So there's a process established that was established right at the beginning for collecting any information on this. Q How far along is that investigation? Do you have any idea? MR. BOUCHER: I don't know about any specific cases. Q There's no impending arrest of Saddam Hussein that you know of? MR. BOUCHER: Not that I'm aware of. Q Richard, does the United States know yet whether Iraq is going to accept or not the terms for a permanent ceasefire set out in the proposed U.N. resolution? MR. BOUCHER: I don't think we do, at this point. Q Has Ambassador Pickering met with Ambassador al-Anbari in the last 48 hours? MR. BOUCHER: I don't know. I have to check on that. I know he's had meetings during the course of these discussions up in New York. He's had meetings with the Iraqis. Our view remains that they have to comply, first of all, with the existing resolution -- Resolution 686 -- as we have discussed with our Perm Five partners, the issues of compliance. We all agree Iraq should comply with any new resolutions that are laid down. Q Richard, this weekend marks the formal dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, a somewhat momentous occasion. Does the State Department have any comment or any reflection upon the death of our old adversary? MR. BOUCHER: Not today. Let me see if we want to do something. Q Can I ask you, what is next in the peace process? Are there any visits, any announcements? What is next in the Arab-Israeli conflict from this government? MR. BOUCHER: I don't have anything particular for you at this time. I'm sure that we'll continue our discussions with the various parties. We've been in touch with them. Margaret's reported, I think, extensively on conversations that the Secretary and Dennis Ross and others have had over the course of the week. Those kinds of consultations will continue as we look for points of convergence. Q Not that extensively. MR. BOUCHER: Extensively as we're going to, Bill. Q On the fire, what about the security of documents in that building? Is anything being done about that? Is there concern about it? MR. BOUCHER: Again, we have to do a full assessment. I said earlier that, in general, we are not aware of any significant compromises that might have occurred during the course of the fire and the firefighters and all those events that took place. We'll have to do a full assessment of that. Q Will there be 24-hour Marine Guards around the building? MR. BOUCHER: I believe so. Yes. Q Do you know how much money has been spent on the renovations? And have all the renovations been done on that central part? In other words, have they been destroyed? MR. BOUCHER: I don't think all the renovations were done because there was this renovation project underway. As I said, the sprinkler systems were in only parts of the building but we had done enough to prevent even more extensive damage. I don't have the dollar figures on the project. I'll have to get that for you. Q Richard, there's another momentous event this weekend. That's the Albanian election. Q (Inaudible) the Moscow Embassy. One final question, George. Are you sending teams in to assess from here? Wouldn't this need a certain amount of specialized knowledge of people from here rather than just your Embassy -- MR. BOUCHER: I'm not aware of any specific teams. But, of course, since we have building projects underway in Moscow and renovation projects underway in Moscow, we have a considerable amount of expertise out there already. I'm sure that those are the people, at least, that are doing the initial assessments. Whether we require additional expertise or not, we'll find out as we proceed with more detailed assessments. Q Do you have anything on the Albanian election this weekend? MR. BOUCHER: Not today, no. I think we've expressed our hopes and desire that it be free and fair. We do have the initial team of people out there looking at our Embassy. They'll be following the events there. There were a number of other observers that were going out, so we'll see how the events progress. Q In the discussions that Secretary Baker and Ambassador Matlock had, did the Soviets respond in any way? Did they say that they would avoid the use of force or anything else? MR. BOUCHER: I'm not aware of any particular detailed response in those meetings. I think they just basically said they understood our points. Q Thank you. (Press briefing concluded at 1:05 p.m.) (###)